Britain to return locks of hair of Emperor Tewodros II to Ethiopia

Kwao Saa

A museum in Britain has agreed to return two locks of hair belonging to a former Ethiopian Emperor.

The British Army Museum announced on Monday that it would return the hair, which belonged to Emperor Tewodros II, who ruled Ethiopia in the 19th-century. The museum said the decision was made after recognizing the hair “to be of cultural sensitivity to Ethiopian citizens.”

Emperor Tewodros II died in a war with the British. He chose to kill himself rather than surrender to the British army, who had captured his capital Maqdala in 1868. The British say they were fighting to rescue Europeans who were in captivity. Emperor Tewodros II shot himself with a gun that the British Queen had given to him as a gift.

According to the National Army Museum, the two locks of the Emperor’s hair were donated by a family of an artist in 1959. The artist, whose name was not given, reportedly painted Tewodros II while he was on his deathbed. One lock of the Emperor’s hair was framed with a letter that also contained the royal seal.

The British are known for absconding with many African artifacts during the colonial era. The British army plundered hundreds of treasures from ancient Ethiopia, including a wedding dress and a gold crown. All these items are on display at the National Army Museum.

The National Army Museum said the collection is regarded as an essential part of Britain’s “historical connection to a major and unique campaign fought by the British army in 1868 and were collected in good faith.”

However, the Ethiopian government has described the collection, which contains Emperor Tewodros II’s locks of hair, as “inhumane.” Addis Ababa had called for the hair to be returned so it can be placed in the grave of Tewodros II at the Trinity Monastery in northern Ethiopia.

High-ranking officials at the National Army Museum say they decided to return the locks of hair because Ethiopia’s claim is right.

“Having spent considerable time researching the provenance and cultural sensitivities around this matter, we believe the Ethiopian government claim to repatriate is reasonable, and we are pleased to be able to assist,” Terri Dendy, head of the collection at the museum, said. “Our decision to repatriate is very much based on the desire to enter the hair within the tomb alongside the Emperor.”

Officials at the Ethiopian Embassy in London released a statement expressing their appreciation for the decision.

“For Ethiopians everywhere, as the locks of hair represent the remains of one of the country’s most revered and beloved leaders, a display of jubilant euphoria is to be expected when it is returned to its rightful home in Ethiopia,” the embassy’s statement reads.

The British also took the seven-year-old son of Emperor Tewodros, Prince Alemayehu, to Britain after the battle. Prince Alemayehu reportedly became a favorite of Queen Victoria, the British monarch at the time. Prince Alemayehu died when he was 18 years old and he was buried at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

There have been calls for the remains of Prince Alemayehu to be returned to his ancestral home for a proper burial. However, British authorities are yet to respond to the request formally.

There have also been calls for the British government to return hundreds of stolen African items to their countries of origin. However, the British are dragging their feet on the issue claiming they can care for these items better.

“Some items in private collections have already been returned, but the bulk of the items are in public collections within the UK, and those cannot be restituted without an act of Parliament, and that is something that requires a big change on popular opinion, and a bill has to be presented by members of Parliament,” said Alula Pankhurst, a former professor at Addis Ababa University.